gotta catch em all

Voice Actress Sarah Natochenny Understands the Importance of Ash Ketchum

Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage

Sarah Natochenny, now 35, has been the voice of Ash Ketchum since booking the job at 18, after the Pokémon Company took over for 4Kids TV for the English dubbing of the series in 2006. Ash, who likely needs no introduction, is an iconic fictional character that’s been around for 25 years as the main protagonist of Pokémon. Alongside Pikachu, Misty, Brock, and plenty of other sidekicks along the way, the character has grown up with his fans as he experienced a hero’s journey to becoming the Pokémon master. Now that the Japanese series has officially announced Ash as the winner of the Pokémon league’s World Coronation Series Master Eight Tournament, he will be closing out his storyline once and for all in the final 11 episodes of the Ultimate Journey series. As two new protagonists attempt to take on the challenge that took Ash 25 years to complete, Natochenny is looking back at her own Pokémon journey. “In my 20s, I really struggled with depression and knowing that I could play a character so truthfully, who’s so happy-go-lucky and so positive and so tenacious and gets through difficult things with such positivity,” she tells Vulture. Ahead, Natochenny talks about growing up with the franchise, when she found out Ash won, and what Pokémon she’d name her next pet after.

What was your relationship to Pokémon when you were younger? Were you a big fan? 
The show came out when I was 11 and I was a huge fan right off the bat. And by the time I booked it at 18, I’d been watching the show. When I finally got the audition for it, I was shocked to audition at such an early stage of my career, and it was just a classic audition process. I didn’t know anybody related to it.

Did you have a favorite Pokémon before becoming Ash? 
11 year old Sarah … What did she love? I don’t remember. I remember loving Pikachu. I’ve always loved Pikachu. Probably the greatest animated creature ever drawn.

Do you have another Pokémon that you identify with? Or do you most resonate with Pikachu?
I voiced 21 of the Pokémon on the show [and] my favorite one I voice is Buneary. I love voicing Chansey, and apart from that, I love Meltan — that’s voiced by Samantha Cooper. She’s amazing. And I love Snorlax and Psyduck and Mew and Mewtwo. I love them all. They’re all my children.

I saw on Tiktok that you named your cat after Pikachu.
My cat is now named Pikachu. It’s not an intentional impression of Ikue Ōtani who plays Pikachu, but it’s very much like Pikachu. I talked to my cat all day in a Pikachu voice, if you ever end up in an apartment with the two of us.

If you had to name another pet after a Pokémon, what Pokémon would you pick?
That’s a really unique question. It would definitely be another Pokémon. Oh! Rayquaza. [Points to imaginary dog.] This is my dog Rayquaza. I kind of like the sound of that.

What’s your most memorable fan interaction?
The one that really stands out to me is this one girl who really opened up to me about her struggles with depression, and we connected over that. She visits me every once in a while whenever I’m in her town and lets me know how she’s doing. Pokémon has really helped her overcome a lot of the struggles she’s faced in her life, and that’s such a common story. That’s the most common thing I see in my fan mail is, “Thank you for getting me through these dark times,” “It got me through the pandemic,” and “It got me through this difficult time, and I was suicidal, and it got me through that.” To know that I’m even the tiniest part of something that helps people in that way, especially as someone who struggles herself. That’s incredibly meaningful to me.

Photo: The Official Pokémon YouTube channel/YouTube

When you found out that Ash won the Pokémon League, did you know it was coming? Did they prep you beforehand, or was it a surprise when you got the script?
I haven’t seen the script yet. I didn’t know. We haven’t recorded [the English version] yet. In recording this season of Master Journeys, I definitely felt as a fan of storylines in general, books and movies, I understood that this feels like a culmination of a storyline. My mind went to “There’s no way this could be! I can think of a million different ways that Ash can continue on.” But, the best way is what Pokémon ultimately did, which is to conclude Ash’s storyline. They’re doing a beautiful job in Master Journeys of wrapping him up. So, I felt it.

When they told me the news definitively, the shock still really got to me, and I was very, very sad. I had to turn that sadness into a positive and see how this could be a benefit to Pokémon and to the fans and be open to this new journey that they’re going to take us on. And trust that Pokémon, the people who brought us 25 years of characters like Ash Ketchum and all of his sidekicks and these wonderful storylines, can deliver on a new series.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about playing Ash?
In my 20s, I really struggled with depression and knowing that I could play a character so truthfully, who’s so happy-go-lucky and so positive and so tenacious. Knowing that I can do that, realistically, I knew that there must be something in me that’s like Ash. So I’ve drawn from him over the years and it’s really helped me.

I grew up with Pokémon and used to pretend I was Togepi so much so that it became my family nickname growing up. They still call me Togepi. 
Oh my God, cute.

It is amazing how impactful a cartoon could be to someone.
Yeah, it’s incredible. I hear it so often, and I feel it myself playing him. I can’t believe it.

Sarah Natochenny Understands the Importance of Ash Ketchum